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Sir Peter O'Sullevan dies, aged 97

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Tributes have been paid to Sir Peter O'Sullevan - known to millions as the 'Voice of Racing' - who has died at the age of 97

Sir Peter O'Sullevan, known to many as simply the 'Voice of Racing', has died at the age of 97.

O'Sullevan was the commentator for the BBC for 50 years, a tenure stretching from 1947 until his retirement in 1997.

Known for his sharp mind, even well into his later life, he had a delivery like no other and his description of the 1977 Grand National, which was Red Rum's famous third success, and Desert Orchid's popular Cheltenham Gold Cup victory in 1989 will never be forgotten.

He was awarded a knighthood before his 50th and final Grand National commentary and even until very recently was still a regular visitor to the Cheltenham Festival.

Nigel Payne, chief executive of the Sir Peter O'Sullevan Charitable Trust, said: "Sir Peter died earlier this afternoon, very peacefully, at home.

"Sir Peter was one of the greatest men I've ever known. Only last week he was talking about what he wanted me to do for the trust in the future. He was still very alert. It's a sad day."

O'Sullevan began his career in racing in print journalism, working for the Press Association before joining the Daily Express.

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Known as one of the shrewdest punters in the game, he was still beating the bookies in his later years.

As well as being famous for his achievements behind the microphone, O'Sullevan was also a successful owner.

Be Friendly won the King's Stand at Royal Ascot and the Prix de l'Abbaye at Longchamp as well as two Haydock Sprint Cups, and perhaps most famously of all his Attivo won the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham in 1974, a race O'Sullevan later described as the hardest to call in his life.

Former jockey Jimmy Lindley, who later worked with O'Sullevan for the BBC, said: "He was a great friend and I'm so sorry.

"He doesn't just compare with the great people in racing, but in life in general

"He always liked to give the underdog a blow up on TV to make them feel better. If they felt up against it he just had a knack of saying the right thing.

"When I first started in TV he gave me all the confidence in the world and I couldn't say enough about him.

"As a commentator no one else could give you the same feeling watching a race, he made it feel as if you were riding in it, you felt like you were on the horse yourself.

"He had a little black book with all his contacts and form lines and basically the history of racing was in it. It made him fortunes and I'd love to see it, he must have won a fortune..

"I'm so sorry to hear the news."

Broadcaster and pundit John McCririck also paid tribute to O'Sullevan, describing him as the "ultimate professional".

He told Sky Sports News: "Everyone will say he was the voice of racing, because he was. His commentaries will live for centuries.

"All the great races since the war have been called by Sir Peter O'Sullevan until his retirement.

"Underneath it he was a tough, hard journalist, a secretive man and a quiet man.

"You respected what he said. He had very strong opinions, not popular with everyone. A lot of people will be eulogising about him, quite rightly, but he was tough and hard underneath and to his soul a journalist.

"Commentary has evolved, helped by Sir Peter, of course, but he was a commentator from another era. He was recognised for his commentary and set the benchmark.

"His journalism was absolutely outstanding and he was the ultimate professional."

Jim McGrath, who succeeded O'Sullevan as the BBC racing commentator, told At The Races: "It's a very sad day in racing and you can feel that here at Goodwood. It's dawning on people that the man they knew as the voice of racing for more than two generations, the voice that was synonymous with our sport for so many people, has gone. It's hard to believe.

"At (the age of) 97, it's a great knock, but at the same time he was razor-sharp in his mind right to the very end, although he did say to me recently 'I don't think the body's designed to last 100 years!'.

"He was a great, great man. He had a complete understanding and appreciation of exactly what was happening on the racecourse.

"He had an appreciation of the racehorse itself and also the jockeys, the participants involved and every layer of preparation that went into getting a horse to the racecourse. He could identify it and appreciate it and I think that came out in his commentaries.

"I think racing has been very lucky to have a man that was so passionate about the sport able to eloquently convey everything that was good about it to the outside world.

"He was a great sports commentator and this was long before we had close-up shots and people describing things off monitors. This was with the famous BBC binoculars off a German U-boat, with big fields at very big racetracks. It was some effort to do that.

"His technique changed as he got older. He adjusted his technique to suit himself.

"His name lives on with his charities and the amount of money he's raised has been quite incredible. It is a mark of the man."

Derek Thompson was a counterpart of O'Sullevan on ITV and later Channel 4, and still works as a broadcaster and commentator.

He said: "He was the greatest commentator of all time, simple. You don't get any better than Sir Peter O'Sullevan.

"In those days there was no colour TV, there was no monitor, maybe black and white if you were lucky, he did it all through his big, heavy binoculars and I never heard him call a wrong one.

"He did his last Grand National commentary at the age of 79 - imagine doing a commentary on a race, never mind the Grand National, at 79.

"He loved it, he lived his racing. As a young man all he wanted to do was get into racing. He used to go to Epsom, he was brought up near the Downs and he'd go there as a young kid on his own.

"He would get up and it was all racing, he was a guy who crossed the line for the people in the street. Everywhere you'd go, people knew him. People knew Red Rum and people knew Peter O'Sullevan.

"When I first heard him at the age of six I thought 'that's the guy I want to be', but I never got anywhere near him. To this day I wanted to be half as good as Peter O'Sullevan. He was the greatest commentator of all time, not just in racing but in all sports.

"What he had you couldn't buy, and he was a great guy as well.

"There'll never be another Sir Peter O'Sullevan, he was absolutely incredible."

BBC presenter Gary Lineker offered his thoughts on Twitter. He said: "Saddened to hear of the passing of Peter O'Sullevan. Indisputably one of the greatest sporting commentators of our time."

Recently retired racing great Tony McCoy tweeted: "Sir Peter O'Sullevan, the epitome of class. The most distinguished and eloquent voice of racing. He was an amazing man. R.I.P."

The news of O'Sullevan's death came while many racing figures were at Goodwood.

Spectators included five-time champion jockey Willie Carson, a former colleague of O'Sullevan, who told Channel 4 Racing: "It's very sad to think he's no longer here except on on our old videos.

"I always remember in the days when racing was on the evening news, they'd show the last furlong of the Classics. You'd switch the TV on and it would be Peter giving the commentary. You'd be listening to Sir Peter's dulcet, velvet tones giving the commentary. It was lovely. He was 'Mr Horseracing'.

"He gave me quite a lot of advice when I was working for the BBC. He said to me 'Willie do not tell the punters a horse cannot win'. It was very good advice and I remember it because I didn't listen to it!"

Nick Rust, chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority, said: "Today is a sad day for British racing. Many generations of racing fans will trace their love of racing back to Sir Peter's unmistakeable commentaries.

"He had an innate ability to capture the thrills of our sport, managing as he did to enhance and often define our iconic races.

"He was also one of the rare characters to have transcended our sport, being held dear as he was by the British public, and also represented the best of us: his charitable endeavours should serve as his finest legacy and a reminder to us all that we should be judged by the manner in which our animals, as well as our people, are looked after."

Respected Ladbrokes PR man Mike Dillon was a long-time friend of O'Sullevan. He said: "I'm proud to say that although it was initially in a professional capacity, I became a very close friend of his. We shared some tremendous family celebrations and nobody loved a party more than Peter.

"With alarming regularity he used to see off people half his age at lunches and I found very early on that when you went for lunch with him, you knew it would go to extra time and penalties!

"Some people are so special that you meet that they leave an indelible mark on this world and Peter was one such person.

"He's raised over £4million and it was one of the proudest days of my life when he asked me if I would become a trustee of the charity. It's the 19th year and typically of Sir Peter, he decided very early in the year that AP McCoy would receive a special merit award - this was long before AP announced he was going to retire.

"He asked AP if he would become a trustee of the charity, so he definitely had a crystal ball!

"My children grew up knowing him as a family friend and it was only later, when they grew up, that they came to understand what his status in racing was.

"As a young lad in my parents' pub in Manchester I grew up listening to that voice over the airwaves. Little did I realise that in later years we would become such close friends."

Tony Hall, director general of the BBC, said: "For half a century Sir Peter was the voice of horse racing on the BBC. He was a wonderfully talented commentator whose passion and deep knowledge of racing came through in every broadcast he made. He will be much missed."

On behalf of Goodwood, the Duke of Richmond said: "This afternoon I was saddened to hear the news of Sir Peter O'Sullevan's passing. It is a big loss for racing, and his voice was the most iconic I can think of in any sport.

"He was a great friend of Goodwood, commentated here for many years and, after his retirement, we were delighted that he often joined us as a guest and to enjoy the racing. He opened our Sussex Stand in 1990.

"He will be greatly missed. My family and I send our deepest sympathies to his family and close friends."

A statement from the Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Centre read: "It was with great sadness that we learned of Sir Peter's passing.

"Sir Peter was the first Patron of the TRC when it was founded almost 25 years ago by Carrie Humble and his support for the work of the centre in retraining and rehoming retired racehorses has been unstinting ever since.

"We were honoured to be named among his six favourite charities when Sir Peter set up his Charitable Trust in 1997 and the donations we have received through the Trust have been invaluable in continuing our work.

"He will be greatly missed by us all at the TRC."

John Sexton, former president of the Horserace Writers and Photographers Association, added: "This is tragic news for British racing as we have lost not only a great commentator, but a truly great journalist. On a personal level, I have lost a true friend.

"With his colleague Clive Graham at the Daily Express, Sir Peter was responsible for the reforming the Horserace Writers Association in 1967, taking on the role of vice president. Over the years he was a key player in the organisation and was a source of much help and advice during my 10 years as president from 1994.

"In 1997, I was honoured to be asked to be Master of Ceremonies at his first awards dinner following the setting up of his Charitable Trust and to be asked back year on year and, without fail, after each awards ceremony I would receive a hand-written note of thanks.

"It may be a cliche, but in this case it is true - we really won't see his like again."

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